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Former defense CEO: STEM focus needed in schools

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Posted: Monday, September 9, 2013 10:46 pm

The former chairman and CEO of aerospace and defense titan Lockheed Martin toured Albemarle County Public Schools on Monday morning and met with area business leaders, politicians and staff from the University of Virginia.

Norman Augustine served as the Under Secretary of the Army from 1975 until 1977 and currently serves as the chairman of the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee.

Since retiring, Augustine has spearheaded engineering programs in American grade schools and has voiced concerns on the lack of young scientists the implications that has for U.S. national security, the economy and the country’s global leadership.

The Daily Progress met with Augustine in private Monday afternoon at the West Main Restaurant in downtown Charlottesville to discuss his recent visit to Albemarle Schools.

What brings you to Albemarle County today?

I’ve had a long interest in K-12 education and, since I retired, I decided to devote much of time to trying to better K-12 education in this country. I was invited to come here to learn a little about some of the things that are being done in the schools here.

I visit schools all around the world and I’m trying to learn lessons on what works and what doesn’t work. I go to a lot of places and see what doesn’t work, so it’s a pleasure to go somewhere and see what does work.

What’s working in Albemarle County Public Schools?

I think there are a number of things. One is you obviously have leadership in the school system that is very enthusiastic about what it’s doing. It’s committed to making change.

I think another thing is it’s decided STEM education – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is very important to the future of young people and the future of our economy. So, it’s focused in that area.

Another is the dedication to giving real-world experience along with traditional classroom experience, so that young people can see the relevance of what they’ve been studying. I think that’s being done as well here as just about any place I’ve visited.

Why are so many school divisions struggling with STEM-focused education?

I think there are a number of obstacles. One is that many parents who did not study much math themselves say to their children, ‘Yeah, math is really hard. I never understood it, either.’ And that discourages children.

I think another obstacle is the pace of change of technology is so fast that teachers have to just keep learning to keep up with what has to be learned. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers are very busy. They don’t keep up. So, they’re very uncomfortable with the new teaching methods, the new teaching content.

If you have a teacher that’s been in a classroom with a piece of chalk for 30 years and you bring in a new computer system and add a printer, obviously they’re going to be uncomfortable with that. You need to help them tool up.

I think the third deterrent is science and engineering in this country have never really had the respect that they’ve had in many other countries, particularly in developing countries where to be an engineer or scientist is the dream of most young people. Whereas in this country I suspect the dream is to go work on Wall Street, or something like that.

Is there a risk, 50 or 100 years down the road, the U.S. may not be producing the engineers necessary to sustain its current status, economically or politically?

I think we’re already in that situation, particularly in higher ed.

Two-thirds of the Ph.D.s in engineering that are awarded by U.S. universities go to young people who were born outside of this country. The supply of engineers, by and large, with Ph.D.s is not coming from native-born people. The very best foreign students are coming here less and less and going home more and more.

I don’t think that supply will dry up for a long time, but eventually it will diminish even more. So, I think that’s a concern.

What can schools in Albemarle do?

I think that, not just this county but the nation as a whole, has to take a new look at the importance of teachers. I think we need to bring the free enterprise system to K-12 education – which, to me, means introduce more competition, it means having measured results with consequences for students, teachers, administrators, parents and I think that it means having a much greater focus on the importance of teaching.

For example, pay scales. In my mind, we should pay a physics teachers whatever it takes to have a physicist be a physics teacher in K-12, particularly in eighth grade and on. We should pay a great physics teacher a lot more than a good physics teacher. And a poor physics teacher, we should help find a better career.

Those are things, not just in this county but across the nation, we really don’t do.

With the president calling on Congress today to authorize a strike on Syria, many Americans are worried military involvement of any kind could limit the country’s strategic position. How is America’s position already being tested?

I think the big test we will find will be in the economic area, where we will discover we are not competitive with the world. And we’re moving in that direction, in my opinion.

It’s not too late. I think we can turn that around.

The reason I think the economic argument is so important is because everything else depends on it.

If you don’t have a strong economy, you can’t have strong schools, you can’t have a strong national defense because you don’t have the money to pay for it – Russia proved that – and I think that’s the big danger with this.

***

Augustine left Charlottesville on Monday afternoon for his home in Maryland.

Schools Superintendent Pam Moran thanked Augustine for his visit and sharing his vision with the local school division.

“Only 28 percent of the American population is considered to be scientifically literate, that understands the basics of things like why we have seasons,” Moran said. “In a day and age when science permeates pretty much any decision that gets made, having that kind of a lack of literacy in science has to be a critical failure of the system.”

Moran reasserted her dedication to bringing 21st-century education to Albemarle County schools and turning the division into a statewide and national leader.

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